Exclusive: Dance instructor Abby Lee Miller talks about 'Dance Moms'
By Elizabeth Kwiatkowski, 10/12/2011
Dance Moms proved to be one of the summer's most talked about new reality series after it premiered on Lifetime this summer.
Starring Pittsburgh-area dance instructor Abby Lee Miller and a group of her dance students and their mothers, the series gave viewers a look into the behind-the-scenes drama that happens in a competitive dance studio.
On Tuesday, Abby Lee Miller -- who will host Dance Moms: Most Outrageous Moments, a special which will air on Lifetime tonight at 10PM ET/PT -- talked to Reality TV World about the first season of the show, which will conclude with tonight's special but return for a second season next year.
Below is the first portion of our interview with Abby Lee Miller in which the outspoken dance teacher and studio owner shares her thoughts on several subjects -- including how the show came about, whether claims that she believes dance is more important than school education are really true, how she originally wasn't even supposed to be part of the show's cast, and whether Dance Moms' publicity has been good or bad for her studio's business.
Check back with Reality TV World later this week for more of our exclusive interview with Abby Lee Miller.
Reality TV World: How did the reality show come about and what made you want to be on a reality show with some of your dancers? What were your goals and intentions?
Abby Lee Miller: Well, the show came about from my friend John Corella. We're personal friends and we've been friends for 20 years, and every summer I end up in LA and we talk about all these crazy mothers and how it should be a reality show.
And then I come back to my life in September and he gets back to his life, and then every night I call him saying, "I want to throw out this one and I want to throw out that one and this one's dumber than dirt and it doesn't matter how talented the kid is -- I can't stand the mother," and whatever.
So he was kind of taking notes and writing it all down and pitched it to a producer, and then the producer took it to a production company and then Lifetime came onboard and the rest is kind of history. As far as me being on the show, I wasn't really supposed to be on the show at all.
I didn't want to be on-camera at all until after the first episode when Minister Dawn wreaked havoc on my studio and interrupted my rehearsal when I have to take care of business, and then that's when they were like, "Oh my God, we need her on the show."
And as far as my goals for my students, having my dancers perform on national television every week -- I mean, come on, that's like back in the day of the Fly Girls or Solid Gold -- What dancers are on weekly? On So You Think You Can Dance, they're doing other people's work. They always stick to what they do best.
Reality TV World: The show has shown a lot of drama between you and your dancers' mothers and generated some controversy about your stern teaching approach. Has the publicity been good or bad for business at your studio -- do you have a lot of new students coming in or has the show scared off potential students?
Abby Lee Miller: No, we have students -- I've been doing this for 31 years, so my studio very much a place of education. It has very high standards and I have the reputation in town of, "This is where you bring your child when they are talented and they really want to do this."
Right now, I have four kids -- they hired four people in Pittsburgh to do a movie with Michael Rooney and three were mine and one they booked directly from LA. I have 15 kids in Tokyo Disney in Japan.
I have a girl in The Book of Mormon on Broadway. The seriousness and the dedication and the intensity, let's say if you will, at my studio has always been here. For 30 years, it's been going on. For the TV show, it's kind of just like icing on the cake.
Reality TV World: You put a lot of stress on your pyramid of dancers for your competition team. It seems like you see it as constructive criticism and want to motivate the kids on the bottom to work harder, but do you see a negative to it at all in that it might promote jealousy or competitiveness amongst the girls, or is competitiveness actually the goal you're striving for?
Abby Lee Miller: Well I do everything in my power not to put the kids against each other. I don't know if you know too much about competitions, but there's many different age divisions and many different categories. Here at my own studio and in the history of the Abby Lee Dance Company, I want to win as much as we can possibly win.
So, to put three girls in against each other is dumb. I'd rather put three girls in three different categories like one in lyrical and one in jazz and one in musical theater. Why put all three of them in jazz when you could win every category?
So as far as the pyramid goes, that's why sometimes all the girls don't do solos, is because they would be against each other and sometimes we don't want that. We want them to compete against themselves really, rather than others.
Reality TV World: Just to clarify, are the girls shown on the competition team [on Dance Moms] the only Abby Lee dancers competing at the events they attend, do you also allow other Abby Lee dancers that aren't on the competition team to compete if they want?
Abby Lee Miller: Okay, good question. Last year when they started shooting the show, it was the middle of April. My competition season for the Abby Lee Dance Company was pretty much over. We compete in January, February and March here in Pittsburgh.
It just so happens that most of the competitions locally that we attend -- that come into Pittsburgh -- I attend really high-end things and they come into Pittsburgh in the winter. Why? I don't know, but that's when they come in.
So after Easter, we're pretty much done. We're just working on our showcase -- our dance concert. So, that's when the show started shooting. The show had to find competitions for me to go to and nothing was [here] in Pittsburgh, so that's why we would go to the extent and everything of going out of town to find different competitions for them, because my stuff is over.
Had we been going in Pittsburgh, sure, my other kids could have attended. They would have had to pay their own way and signed up separately, but sure. I try to get them to show more kids on the show. I really have some amazing teenagers.
The Mr. Dance of America and the Miss Dance of Pennsylvania are here in my studio right now. They're my students. They have been since they were three-years-old, and they're quite incredible dancers. I wish you could see all of them on the show, but there's just no time.
Reality TV World: Your intense teaching methods have sparked controversy, so would you consider or describe yourself as a role model and mentor to these young girls or would you say you're all business and are simply dedicated to being their dance coach and seeing improvement and results?
Abby Lee Miller: No, I'm definitely their mentor. Some of them are child prodigies and the ones to achieve greatness that only I have dreamed for them, I sometimes -- I've said it before. I think my dreams are bigger than their own dreams. I raise every child in this studio as if they were my own children and that's what parents forget.
A lot of the moms on the show, like Kelly, this is her first teenager with Brooke. I've been through a thousand teenagers. Yeah, definitely, definitely. Kids have gotten sick all over me. I've held a kid's head, I've stood there while they're throwing up from something they ate that was bad -- every bruise or every bump or every broken bone, I'm the one that's there with them.
I did the "mom duty" quite often. It's just these people on the show that are there all the time -- most parents can't afford the luxury of traveling with the kids. They can't go everywhere that we go.
So, the kids often travel with me by themselves. I have a temporary guardianship of them, so yeah. It's more than that and you know, when they're at that audition or they're on their way to that big audition, usually I'm the one driving them.
Reality TV World: I don't know if the shooting schedule is why, but the show showed you on the road with your competition team for several weeks but you obviously have a lot of other students that take classes at your studio -- a few that you have mentioned -- beyond the girls on the competition team. So how much involvement do you have with the studio's non-competition team kids and are you able to teach them on a regular basis?
Abby Lee Miller: Yes. I don't work with too many of the -- we call them rookies -- the recreation students. They come once a week for class, and I'm usually here. I write the lesson plans for their classes, but I'm not always here because I do travel. But that's not only for the show. I do a lot of master teaching all over the country prior to the show.
So, I was gone a lot anyway and you kind of need a day off to re-charge and that's what our recreation classes are, and I have great faculty here. Most of my faculty that I have were trained by me.
They started here at three-years-old, and they either left and worked professionally and then had time to come back to the area or are married and are working for me, or they've been here since they started dancing and never left. I'm here at 4:30, so I'm here. I actually teach all the time. (Laughs) My classes normally begin at 4:30. So, I'm here and ready to teach.
Reality TV World: Christi was shown [on the show] saying that you always say "dance needs to come before school" and that the girls miss school all the time for dance competitions and such. Do you really believe dance is more important than a school education and how does that work -- are the girls home-schooled while on the road?
Abby Lee Miller: Absolutely not. I never say that. She's probably lying. I don't agree with everything in the public school system. I believe that, certainly, they need an education. I would love it.
I freak out on my girls, especially my senior company, and I always tell them if they could speak seven languages fluently, they would be able to write their own ticket and get a job anywhere because they're gorgeous girls. They know how to interview, they wear a stunning suit and they could work in any huge company internationally.
They could fly out all over the world if they could speak Mandarin or Chinese and they laugh at me. So, I definitely think -- like Maddie for example -- she's extremely intelligent, and I yell at Melissa all the time, "Let's hire a private tutor to teach her Chinese. She's not getting that in school."
But on the flip side, I do not think that my dancers need to take [physical education], and in Pennsylvania, that's a huge thing here -- the physical education requirement, like getting into the gym uniform and getting hit in the face with the dodgeball and hit in the bust over and over and over and calling it phys ed, that's really important here in Pittsburgh.
I think that my girls who are dancing 16 hours a week should be exempt from physical education and during that 45-minute period, they should be in an accounting class or another math class or another language class. So, I think Christi has that a little bit confused.
If I could eat lunch while I'm driving my car, they can eat lunch at their desks. There's a lot of time wasted of going to the cafeteria and getting in line and getting your food, and then you have to shove it down your throat and then run back to class.
They could all sit on a yoga ball during class and eat at their desk and then be out of school at 2:00. So when it comes to their education, I'm just anti-wasting time. (Laughs)
Reality TV World: How was it decided to focus on the specific young girls on the show and their mothers? Was it as simple as these were the seven girls on your competition team when the show began filming?
Abby Lee Miller: Actually, [the production company] Collins Avenue Entertainment, they interviewed -- I believe it was 23 families, to choose those mothers. The children were never auditioned.
Reality TV World: Would you be able to elaborate on that a little more and discuss what criteria was used, if you know?
Abby Lee Miller: I have no idea. You'd have to check with the producers on the show. I really don't know. I laugh about this all the time, but it's sad, because I have some amazing students who pay their bills on time, who follow all the rules, who say, "Yes, Ms. Abby. Thank you, Ms. Abby," give me birthday gifts and Christmas gifts and are excellent students. Excellent. And they are not on the show, sadly, because they don't make good TV. (Laughs)